A Thoughtful Discussion with Gene Robinson About Religious Freedom, Minority Rights, and Social Activism
On June 7, 2003, Gene Robinson was elected Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, becoming the first openly-gay and partnered priest to be elected Bishop in historic Christendom. Despite national and international opposition and efforts to derail his consecration, Robinson was consecrated bishop on November 2, 2003, and served as IX Bishop of New Hampshire until his retirement in early 2013.
Following his retirement, and prior to coming to Chautauqua, Robinson served as a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC, speaking and writing on national and international LGBT issues, race, poverty, and immigration reform. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Auburn Seminary, New York City. In addition to being a popular speaker in the U.S. and abroad, he has regularly written opinion columns on a variety of topics for The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and Time.com.
Earlier in his ministry, he coordinated ministry for the seven dioceses of New England, authored the “Being Well in Christ” conference model on clergy wellness, initiated and co-authored “Fresh Start,” a two-year mentoring program for all clergy in new positions now in use in nearly half of the dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Much of his ministry has focused on helping congregations and clergy, especially in times of conflict, utilizing his skills in congregational dynamics, conflict resolution and mediation.
Co-author of three AIDS education curricula for youth and adults, Gene has done AIDS work in the United States and in Africa (Uganda and South Africa). He has been an advocate for anti-racism training in the diocese and wider Church. He helped build the Diocese of New Hampshire’s close working partnership with the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, advocated for debt relief for the world’s most impoverished nations, lobbied for socially-responsible investment within and beyond the Church, and had a special ministry to those incarcerated in New Hampshire’s prisons. Bishop Robinson has served on the boards of the Church Pension Fund, NH Children’s Alliance, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC.
He is author of In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God (Morehouse, 2006) and God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage (Knopf, 2012). He is the subject of two feature length documentaries: Daniel Karslake’s For the Bible Tells Me So (2007) and Macky Alston’s Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning Love Free or Die (2012). He holds the M.Div. degree from General Theological Seminary, a B.A. in American Studies/History from the University of the South, Sewanee, TN, and several honorary doctorates.
World Religion News spoke with Bishop Robinson about the intersection of religion and politics in the United States. We discussed how faith should dictate social activism and what movements should be seen as inspiring examples. Bishop Robinson also gave his opinions on the use of religious freedom as opposition to LGBTQ rights in the United States.
World Religion News:: Increasingly it seems like some individuals in both political and religious circles are using the language of religious freedom as a justification to limit LGBTQ rights. What are your thoughts on this?
Bishop Robinson: I think it’s going to be the question that plagues us for the next decade. And the trajectory of it will be determined by the Supreme Court decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case which should be announced next month in June 2018.
Either way the decision goes, it will determine the trajectory for everyone interested in this topic — literally for the next decade, because whoever loses this case is going to seek to overturn it. We know that it takes about 17 years on average for the Supreme Court to reverse a precedent.
I would say it is a very short distance from refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding to refusing to seat African-Americans at a lunch counter during the days of segregation. That is to say, if you allow someone who hangs out a shingle advertising a service to deny that service to someone who walks in search of those services, everyone’s rights are in danger. Because we know that in the 1960’s, those who supported segregation did so on religious grounds, claiming that scripture condemns the mixing of the races and that people of color are inferior. So it seems to me that this has already been decided back in those days, but it’s being raised in clever and fairly ingenious ways, in an effort to apply it to LGBTQ people.
At this point, I don’t think anyone knows how this decision is going to go. Usually, there’s a consensus based on the oral arguments made in front of the Supreme Court, about how this is going to be decided, and everyone on both sides of this issue admits they have no idea.
“If you allow someone who hangs out a shingle advertising a service to deny that service to someone who walks in search of those services, everyone’s rights are in danger.”
WRN: Would you say this is just a tactic used as a way to make more palatable denial of services because it’s easier to say religious freedom than “we don’t want to give services to specific groups?”
BR: It adds a kind of legitimacy to discrimination. Precisely what is being sought here is permission to discriminate and not just to LGBTQ people. So if a pharmacist is opposed to birth control and someone comes in for birth control pills, should they be denied that service based on that pharmacist’s religion? If an EMT rushes to an accident and discovers that one of the people hurt who requires resuscitation is a person of color or is a person with HIV, or some other condition condemned by the EMT’s religion, should they be able to deny service based on those religious reasons. They would be allowed to do so if this goes through. If people are going to hang a shingle out, they need to provide that service to anyone who comes in and requests it.
WRN: What do you say to critics who say they should not be forced to violate their faith?
BR: I would say that no one is forcing them to be a baker. No one is forcing them to open a bakery and purport to serve the public. That’s a red herring in the sense that they want all the other benefits that come from being a business owner, but they don’t want to serve all the public. They want an exception to be made and permission to be given to exclude that service from a group or a person to whom they object.
WRN: If you are someone of faith, whether a Christian or any other religion, do you have to be actively speaking out on social justice issues? Can you afford to sit on the sidelines?
BR: It seems pretty clear to me in every account that we have of the words that Jesus himself is reported to have said, he believed that standing silent on the sidelines while injustices are being done is complicity with the condemned behavior. And so not to stand up for the marginalized, not to speak out on behalf of those who are being discriminated against is, in fact, to be complicit in discrimination.
“Not to stand up for the marginalized, not to speak out on behalf of those who are being discriminated against is, in fact, to be complicit in discrimination.”
WRN: When have you seen changes occur when people have become activists and seen positive results in recent times?
BR: Well I think the most obvious examples would be the #MeToo movement for one — where we have seen not only people willing to step up and tell their stories of abuse at the hands of a more powerful person, but also in the increasingly large number of people who have an understanding that this a wrong that needs to be righted. That it is a systemic problem, of systemic abuse of power. I think those numbers are growing and there are great numbers of brave women who have stepped forward with these stories. Whether it be in the Bill Cosby case or the Harvey Weinstein case or countless others. Those women have done us a real service and have made this issue much more at the forefront.
The Women’s March the day after the inauguration of President Trump is another such movement in the sense that huge numbers of women came to Washington D.C. (as well as staged marches in their own locations), stepped up, and said we’re not going to put up with the treatment of women in this way. And literally, hundreds of them returned home to sign up to run for office themselves.
I would point to the students at the Parkland School where the shooting took place in Florida who found their voice and in a very much more mature way than you might expect from someone their age, have really impacted thinking about guns and gun control. Every age has its own time to stand up and be counted. And certainly, I would put those examples in that category.
WRN: Is education the way to promote that? Or there is an alternative path? Or is it a multitude of different strategies and tactics?
BR: Well I think there are a variety of ways to have a change of heart about something. What we know for sure is that coming into direct contact with the people who are involved in a situation that needs to be changed is the most impactful of all educational efforts.
We know that knowing someone gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, knowing someone who is LGBTQ is the most determinative factor in their being supportive of LGBTQ people. And it it’s just an example of a broader understanding that while we can talk about issues and sacred texts and philosophical ideas, when you actually encounter a person, that issue becomes incarnated in a human being. All of a sudden one is not able to write them off the way one could when you’re only talking about stereotypes or broad issues. I think that’s true of almost every situation.
So having an LGBTQ son or daughter or father or cousin or uncle will make you more sympathetic to and supportive of LGBTQ people. Having someone in your family who has suffered abused by a person in power will bring you around on that issue, or having someone close to you impacted by gun violence will have a tremendous impact on your opinions. It seems to me what religious institutions should be doing is creating experiences where we can interact with the “other” in our midst.
So bringing in transgender people to talk about what it’s like to be transgender will move people in a way that all the reading in the world about people and issues would never do.
WRN: So what do you do when religious organizations and groups become more insulated and there is less interaction? For example, the Mormons left the Boy Scouts over LGBTQ admittance. How do we gain that interaction when people seem to be retreating?
BR: Well I think we probably can’t do anything in the short term but I believe we have to be in this for the long haul. What I know about LGBTQ issues and conservative churches is that increasingly high numbers of young people are leaving conservative churches.
Why? What they report in surveys is that churches’ attitudes towards LGBTQ people is the main and first reason they give for leaving, and any church that wants to survive has got to keep its young people involved and picking up where older generations are leaving off. My understanding is that conservative Christianity is in a panic about this over LGBTQ issues. And the reason it’s happening is that these young people have friends who are LGBTQ and they know that the things being said about them by their church are just untrue. Who wants to be part of an institution who is telling lies rather than the truth about people they care about?
“Conservative Christianity is in a panic about this over LGBTQ issues. And the reason it’s happening is that these young people have friends who are LGBTQ and they know that the things being said about them by their church are just untrue.”
So I think in the long run that kind of isolation, that kind of digging in and re-entrenchment of these conservative opinions is going to ultimately backfire and have the opposite effect.
Not to be too cynical about it, if you remember in the late 70s that the most senior Mormon, I believe is referred to as the Prophet, who supposedly speaks directly with God, had a revelation about African-American men becoming members of the Mormon priesthood. Suddenly overnight what had been disallowed since its founding was reversed. My prediction is that the Prophet is going to get a revelation from God about LGBTQ people because if he doesn’t Mormonism will die.
WRN: So with that in mind, people say conservative Christians in America have decided to align themselves with President Trump because he is passing their agenda issues, such as nominating very conservative judges who are more likely to rule in their favor in court decisions. Does that create a longer-term obstacle even if younger generations are educated and get more involved? Or do you think public opinion is swaying and change will occur from a grassroots movement?
BR: Yes. I think this will set us back time-wise but it will not set us back permanently. I’m horrified with the kinds of people being named to judgeships because indeed it will cause a lot of pain in the shorter term.
However, the great thing about democracy is that over time it is self-correcting. It is rarely immediately self-correcting. But I do have a long-term belief that over time we get it more and more right. So do I think this is a short-term problem? Absolutely. And yet at the same time, I have this abiding hope that at the end of the day the good and the right will win out.
I would just point out one of the most alarming things about this situation is, given the president’s behavior and things that he’s both been accused of and admitted to, 81 percent of evangelicals in America voted for him. It seems to me that gives a lie to what we thought all along — that they were voting their religious values. But clearly, they were willing to jettison virtually all of their religious values in this last election to vote for this vulgar, non-religious, self-absorbed, and selfish human being to be president.
WRN: In some ways Christianity has been used for social justice, for example, the Civil Rights Movement in America and speaking out against dictators in Central and South America. In other ways the mixing of religion with politics as you’ve mentioned can sometimes lead to victimization and minority oppression. So is there a bright line to how people or politicians should express their religion as they’re making policy decisions or is it a case by case basis?
BR: This is one of the most important issues that we face right now: what is the appropriate relationship between one’s religious beliefs and one’s governing principles? It seems to me that the right relationship between those two is this: my religion inspires me and perhaps even demands of me that I pay attention to the most vulnerable, to the poor, to the marginalized. And my religion convinces me that indeed I and/or our society will be judged on how well we care for the most vulnerable among us.
But when I get into the public square and when I get into governing, I need to set aside my religion and not use it to justify my goals governmentally. So I can talk to you all day about how I believe the Gospel calls me to be involved in justice movements. But when I get into the public sphere, I appeal to the Constitution not to the Bible, because America is not a “Christian nation.” This is a nation that for a very, very long time has been a nation with a religious majority of Christians, but it has never been a Christian nation, and it is inappropriate to use those religious principles to govern instead of the Constitution.
We are very imperfectly and much too slowly working out that relationship, between religion and public life, because what actually happens is that we call on scripture when it seems to back up the case we are making, and we avoid it like the plague when it doesn’t. This is a discussion that needs to be had. This Masterpiece Cakeshop case is really about that. It’s about the relationship between private beliefs and public policy and law.
The appropriate approach is for me to be inspired by my religion to get into the public sphere to make life better for people. But then, I never appeal to the Bible to justify those efforts. Rather, I appeal to the Constitution — which is the sacred text of America, not the Bible.